Getting Engaged Through Big Universe

Every once in a while, teachers receive that dreaded e-mail: “You are getting a new student.”  Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the kids I teach and after meeting the new student I quickly grow to love them too.  But the inconvenience of finding a place to sit, getting them caught up in the curriculum, the unknown of behavior problems, past history, etc. causes some anxiety.

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Well back at the beginning of November, I received this e-mail.  Instead of the typical quick fact sheet, I received a note in my mailbox telling me to see the school data manager about this child. Great, I immediately thought, this child has so much baggage the report won’t even fit in my box. 

On my lunch break, I headed to her office bracing myself for whatever I was about to hear.  It turns out this new student of mine has quite the past indeed, but not in the way I was expecting.  It turns out he has been abused pretty terribly at home and now has a restraining order on one of his parents.  He is extremely below grade level and very hesitant to participate.  He has been enrolled at eight elementary schools so far and it’s only fourth grade.

My mood immediately shifted.  Instead of worrying about where he would sit or what cubby number he would take, I realized there were much larger issues here.  His first day came the next day and he very quietly walked into the room.  He didn’t talk much and wouldn’t make eye contact.  Getting him to participate in anything was a struggle.

He has an IEP, so he would be getting quite a bit of additional support, but unfortunately this took a couple weeks to get put in place and he spent that time in the grade level classroom struggling to get any work done.

The last thirty minutes of our day is called “YET” time.  This is when ESL students are pulled, intervention groups push in and pull out students below grade level, I do guided reading groups, and the rest of the students do stamina reading.  This boy also happened to come back from his CCR class at 3:00.  He was too low to be in my guided reading groups, and he isn’t ESL so that wasn’t an area he could be in either.  This meant that he was to stamina read for half an hour every day.

The first day I went to my classroom library with him and we looked at books on his level and tried to pick out one that interested him.  We finally made a decision and he went to his spot to read.  As I was reading with a group of students, I noticed he had the book in his lap and was making a paper airplane on top of the book – clearly not reading.  I let it go this time.

The next day, the same thing happened so I went over to tell him it was okay to pick out a different book if he didn’t like that one.  He went over to the bookshelf, picked one out and sat down.  This time I noticed him coloring instead of reading.  I was uncertain how I was going to get this child to read at stamina reading time.

Then I remembered Big Universe.  This is a program my county pays for and it allows students to read books online that they get to choose.  There is a huge database and they can find books at their level that interest them.  They can even put headphones in and have the computer read the book aloud to them.  I figured this was worth a try.

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The first day I had a student help him get logged on and he seemed to really enjoy it.  Every time I looked back at him he was staring at the computer screen with his headphones on, totally oblivious to the things happening around him in the classroom.  The next day, he came up to me after and told me how he read about sharks and some cool facts he learned about them.  I couldn’t believe how engaged he was!

It’s important to get to know your students and realize that something that works for one student may not work for another.  This child came to me very quiet and reserved, and now he actually gets excited to share with the class things that he read about.  Sometimes getting a new student can actually change the way you view your teaching.  I know that he has taught me a lot already in his month here, and I can’t wait to watch him grow even more.

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